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Cambridge Business interviews Dave Chiswell

Cambridge Business' Jenny Chapman returned to speak with Dave Chiswell, as he took the permanent CEO role at Kymab, about his successes and life in bioscience 20 years after her previous interview with him.

The interview is available at Cambridge News website and reproduced here with permission.

Of mice and men: Kymab is CAT veteran David Chiswell's new venture

Biotech bigwig Dr David Chiswell talks to Jenny Chapman about Kymab, the transgenic mouse company he chairs at Babraham, and his fabulous career in the sector.

David Chiswell and I agree that it is a jolly good idea to be able to treat people in their 60s who fall prey to cancer; but equally, we feel it is the younger folk who come first in the queue.

This is something we probably did not think about two decades ago, the last time I interviewed him, and that's because we were both in our early 40s then.

It's good to see him again, this legendary figure in the life sciences world. When I saw him all those years ago he was chief executive of Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT), the company that came up with the world's first biotech blockbuster, Humira, the treatment for arthritis which made people upright again, freed them from pain, and which, like the rest of CAT, is now owned by AstraZeneca.

For this visit, all these years on, I am at Babraham, the Biotech Campus where CAT began in "a shack" alongside other pioneers in the sector - Sir Chris Evans, before he got the handle, was in a neighbouring shack.

Kymab, which David chairs and is acting chief executive, is in the state-of-the-art (sorry, I hate that cliché, but B930 really is just that) Bennet Building (B930). Soon there will be a new CEO, but David had to step in when the previous encumbant and Kymab parted ways.

So, to tell the whole story of David and Kymab and what has been happening in the intervening years during which biotech has come of age and turned into a hugely successful sector, let alone life-saver.

David, as you can tell from his voice, is from somewhere close to Birmingham (it is actually Smethwick), where his parents still live. His mum was a secretary and his dad an ambulance driver until he shifted to the Mini production line and became what he called "track cabbage" - "but in his heart he was still an ambulance man".

David left school at 17 and came down to London, Queen Mary College, to study plant and micro biology: "I have difficulty knowing which end of a plant is which nowadays."

He went on to Glasgow as a PhD student at the then Institute of Virology, and then as a post-doc to UCLA in Los Angeles where he became engrossed in chicken leukemia viruses.

He returned to this country to join the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which is now Cancer Research UK, and for another post-doc, this time in mammalian cells: "How can you make a cell cancerous."

He spent five years on this before moving into industy with Amersham in 1981 until 1990 when he joined CAT.

"Amersham was interested in developing products to sell to scientists. It's an area worth a huge amount of money now, but in those days it did not really exist."

It was towards the end of his time with Amersham that David started to work with Greg Winter, now Sir Greg and master of Trinity College.

"He was a consultant and we had only just started to work together at Amersham when there was a corporate twitch and they decided to close down the group I was in.

"Both Greg and I were looking to do antibodies, to start companies, but nobody wanted us to do it, antibodies. It looked like they were not going to work in 1989-90, and they were considered boring."

Everyone, of course, has their own idea of boring, wasn't there someone who thought that about computers in the early days, said they would never catch on, they may have said the same about telly, and the Beatles. Anyway, Greg and David were having a hell of a job getting funding to start an antibodies company; eventually they managed to get an Australian company, Peptec, which Greg knew, to back them, but not with very much: "We had to do other work to keep it going. We had half a dozen people. It was a bit hand-to-mouth."

The shack where CAT was based really was just that, but the only place they could find which could remotely be described as a wet lab: "People seemed to think a wet lab was a garage with a sink in the corner. Babraham became a bio-incubator by default because it had those shacks, which were a bit better."

CAT, of course, became a huge success story, suffice to say, David now commutes between his homes in the Channel Islands and Fowlmere, flying himself in his own private plane. Only that morning he had flown his daughter back to university in Nottingham, where she is studying to be a vet. Bet there were not too many undergrads arriving back at college in their dad's private plane.

But David Chiswell, as my niece (oft quoted in these pages) would say, is not in the least "up himself", as unassuming as his old mucker, Greg. Anyway, in my experience.

After 12 years as CAT CEO and two years before it was sold to AstraZeneca to become part of MedImmune, David decided "both sides needed a break" and he began to chair other biotechs – in London, Vienna, Gothenburg. "I went through half a dozen, including Arakis at Chesterford, either as chairman or on the board." Arakis, chaired by Andy Richards, was sold to Sosei, which David chaired, and so the deals go on.

He became chairman of Kymab in 2012 and a year ago took over as interim CEO.

So to Kymab, which is all about mice with human antibodies in them. "Back in the CAT days, making mice with human antibodies fell into the just-about-do category and you had to deal with thousands of mice to get what you wanted."

Allan Bradley, who David describes as the doyen of transgenic mice people, was formerly head of the Sanger Centre. He now spends half his time with Kymab and, apart from the work he does, attracts the other star turns. "People like Allan do that. The first question I ask when I go into a business is 'who is the star?' and they will attrack the others you want. If there isn't someone like that, well, it's going to be a struggle."

It wasn't for Kymab. Before the company was officially formed, Wellcome handed over £20 million to allow Allan and his team to build the first generation of mice.

"It was the biggest mouse engineering project ever, and 0.1 per cent of each mouse is human, but achieving that has been a huge amount of work, and completed in just three years."

Kymab, incorporated in 2010, now has 85 people, all at Babraham - incidentally, there are no mice there, and those which are transgenic are in every other respect completely mouse-like, living mouse-like lives. "Then we had to think, what do you do with it to make money, and the aim is to make antibodies to treat people with."

Kymab has now raised a further £60 million, not least from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which wants to make vaccines for developing countries, and sees what the Babraham team is doing as highly promising, creating an assay for vaccines, finding out what is going to work, via the transgenic mice, in humans and most particularly targeting malaria.

"We do quite a lot of work for Gates, they are funding further projects with additional grants. We have shown what our mice can do. It's about five years off going into humans for malaria."

The big push is, of course, in cancer: "tweaking the immune system to make it fight cancer itself".

Kymab devotes half its people to what I have written about above, but the other half is looking to discover promising leads which will build a broad pipeline for the company, because the plan here is to create something big, not something to be sold to somebody else already big, but kept here in Cambridge as a home-grown, home-owned big biotech.

The rumble in this direction is gradually getting louder across the tech sectors in the city. Why sell out after all that initial struggle, and just when things are looking sure-fire gangbusters?

Kymab has two further projects in its pipeline right now, tackling graft versus host disease, which can be fatal and has a name which is self-explanatory; and in haematology, working on the balance of iron.

"We expect to be in the clinic with both of these in 2017. The aim is to get two projects into the clinic every year, so in five years we will be up to 10. Some we will take forward ourselves, others will go to bigger guys like AstraZeneca. Yes, the aim is to float, but we don't need to yet, and you need lots of milestones happening to go public, and they are to do with clinical progress."

I ask about competition, and yes, there is quite a bit. "In CAT days there were just two or three companies that could do it, but now every big pharma can. One of our aims from the beginning is we want to be a big Europe-based company."

We move on to the even bigger picture, cancer, and where we came in. "I think we are almost there in cancer, although it depends on which cancer. We are looking at long-term survival (five years), the percentage is going up, and people that do respond, do so really well.

"It feels like there has been a really big shift."

For his contributions to the British biotech community, Dr David Chiswell was awarded an OBE in 2006. He is has also included in Reed Exhibitions' list of the Top 100 Living Contributors to Biotechnology.

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